Holiday Journey 3

In the morning, Chris and Lilly heard a knock on the door.  Mary came in, a look of concern on her face.  “I was worried about Lilly.  She struggled yesterday.”

Chris nodded.  They had kept Lilly entertained, and happy during the season so far, but both Mary and Chris knew how poorly she seemed, even if Lilly never complained.

“I’m feeling better today,” Lilly insisted.

“This will be a good day,” Chris said, trying to sound positive, though he feared it would not be his best day what with DSS and the court hovering over his shoulder.

“We are going to get a real Christmas tree,” Lilly said, in her excited voice.

“I have the weekend off,” Mary responded with a big smile, it being Saturday.  She looked at Chris.  “Maybe I could help.”  She made it a statement, but really asked if she could come.

Chris did not hesitate to nod his agreement.  “I could use the help,” he said.  And with that settled, they climbed into Chris’ pickup and went out in search of a real tree.

They drove to several places, Lilly in her car seat in the back, looking out the back window at the Christmas on the street, and Mary sitting close beside Chris, grinning the whole time.  Chris wondered what might be wrong with the girl.  She was what, twenty-one?  Perhaps not even that.  He was turning thirty, practically a father figure.  Why was the girl grinning?

They stopped at several places, but none of the trees seemed quite right. Finally, they got to the supermarket lot, and Chris excused himself to pick-up milk, bread and a few things for home.

When Chris left, Mary turned to Lilly and asked why she had such trouble picking out a tree.  The balsam fir has such a great scent.  “It smells like Christmas,” Mary said.

“I just can’t picture it,” Lilly said, looking at a blue spruce.  “I like this one.  This tree looks nice, but how will it look when it is decorated?”

Mary nodded, like she understood something.  “I think we can give some substance to what we visualize,” she said, but Lilly looked like she did not understand.  Mary found a little stick.  “Pretend you are a Christmas fairy, and this is your magic wand. Point your wand at the tree…yes, like that.”  Mary stood behind Lilly and laid her hands gently on Lilly’s shoulders.  Something sparkled, silver and gold in her touch. “Picture in your mind the way you want the tree to look, and wave your wand to make it happen.”

Something happened.  The silver and gold sparkles went out from the stick and covered the tree.  The tree lit up with lights. It had garland, ornaments, and tinsel all over it, and Lilly gasped, a delighted sound.

“I did it.  It’s beautiful.” Lilly squeaked her words.

“Hey. Save the decoration for home.” The man in the lot yelled and came running up as Lilly collapsed.  The decorations and lights returned to silver and gold sparkles and fell to the ground, like bits of ash after the fireworks.

“Lilly,” Mary caught her and held her head up.  To his credit, the man turned from the tree to concern about the little girl. Lilly turned pale, ashen white, and her skin felt clammy.

“Christopher,” Mary shouted for Chris, as Lilly fluttered her eyes open.

“I want that one,” she breathed, but did not have the strength to lift her hand and point.

Mary nodded for the man.  He picked up the tree and set it in the pickup, while Mary scooped up Lilly and opened the door to get her in her seat.  Chris came out and pulled out his keys.  He stared at his keys for a second.  He thought he locked the truck.  He overpaid the Christmas tree man and hustled.  He got out his phone, but Mary snatched it out of his hand. She dialed the doctor, and held it up for Chris to talk while he focused on his driving.

The nurse saw Lilly first.  She weighed her and measured her while she spoke.  “How old is Lilly, now?  Five?”

“She is nearly seven,” Chris said.  “First grade.”

“Oh.” The nurse seemed surprised. “Developmentally, she is on the chart for a four-year-old.”

“She behaves like she is four often enough,” Chris admitted with a face that could not decide between a frown and a smile.  Lilly tried to smile, and they sat in the examining room for a long time, waiting for the doctor.

An hour later, the doctor strongly recommended Chris take Lilly to the hospital.  The doctor wanted to keep her for a couple of days of observation, and run an MRI on Monday.

“I can’t do that,” Chris replied.  “I just lost my insurance yesterday, but I could not afford the deductible anyway. Besides, you already ran two MRIs in the last four years.  I don’t see how that is going to drastically change.  You said you don’t know what is wrong with her…”  Chris let his voice trail off.  Probably not a smart thing to say to a know-it-all doctor.  The doctor looked like he had to control his response.

“I could send the ambulance and fetch her.”

Chris shook his head.  “Nothing is going to happen in the hospital on Sunday.  Let me keep her this weekend.  I’ll bring her in Monday morning, and we can talk about it.”

The doctor said nothing.  He left the room with a look of frustration and anger.  Chris did not blame him.  Maybe Chris did not feel angry, but he certainly felt frustrated, not knowing what he could do to help Lilly.  Lilly’s condition seemed to have all the doctors stumped.  Lilly felt a bit better by then.  Her condition appeared to get better or worse without reason.  Chris dropped a hand to her shoulder, and Lilly held the hand with both of hers, looked up at him, and tried to smile again.

Chris and Lilly went out to the waiting room and saw that Mary had been crying. Chris felt shocked.  Mary always had a smile.  He felt an urge to hold her and comfort her, but stopped himself.  How could he hug this young woman without suggesting something he did not mean to suggest?  Lilly, of course, did not break her stride.  She threw her arms around Mary, and Chris decided he could add his arms around the two of them, briefly.

“I’ll be all right.  You’ll see,” Lilly said, and tried to smile.

“I am sure you will, little one,” Mary whispered in Lilly’s ear. Then she wiped her eyes and they drove home.  Mary let them go, and went into her own rooms where she wept.  Then she opened her window, as the twilight came, and she spoke softly into the air.

“It is as we feared.  She is dying, being smothered by her humanity.  It is not her natural state, I am sure.  We must rescue her.  Come quick.

Mary left the window open to let in the cold and snowy air.  She stepped into her kitchen and thought something for supper might hit the spot.

************************

MONDAY

A Holiday Journey: Lilly goes missing.

Until then, Happy Reading

*

Holiday Journey 2

Chris picked up his phone.  Mary sent him a text.  Mary lived in the apartment across the hall from his own apartment.  She became his semi-permanent babysitter over the last six months, since his mother got so sick.  Mary picked up Lilly from first grade, and they were presently in a department store downtown, looking for a Christmas present for him, so don’t hurry. Chris smiled.  He hurried, though he figured in his small Midwestern city, nothing could be that far away.

Mary seemed a godsend.  She appeared to be young.  He guessed she attended some local college, and maybe mostly took classes on-line. That, or she recently graduated and was filling the gap between graduation and a good job.  She always seemed to be available when he needed her, but he never would have noticed her if he had not broken up with his fiancé, Courtney, some six months ago; about the time his mother went into hospice.

Lilly, who he had mostly taken care of over those last couple of years when his mother got so sick, had come to live with him by the time Grandma went into hospice. Chris recalled his fights with Courtney were all about Lilly.  He depended a lot on his babysitter, Missus Minelli, at first.  When Lilly finally and permanently moved in with him, Courtney called it the last straw and broke up with him.  Mary moved in that very day.  Lilly seemed immediately drawn to Mary, and Mary volunteered to sit whenever he needed her, and without him even having to ask.  Truth be told, he felt bad about paying her minimum wage, even if he paid her under the table so she got to keep the whole amount.

“Mary.” He saw her right away.  The brisk three-block walk faded as he warmed in the ambient heat of frantic shoppers.  Mary’s smile helped—and Lilly’s hug, when Lilly ran to him.  “And what have you two been up to?” he asked, pretending innocence.

“Buying you a Christmas present, but you are not supposed to know,” Lilly said, as he set her down and took her hand.  “It’s a surprise.”

“A surprise?”  He pretended surprise, while Lilly vigorously nodded her head, before she coughed.  Chris knelt-down to hold her until the coughing fit passed.

“I’m sorry,” Mary said.  “She seems to be struggling today, but I thought a fun outing might do her some good.”

“No, it’s all right,” Chris said.  “It was a good idea.  Lilly always gets sick around Christmas, especially.”

“But maybe an hour and a half since school is enough.”

Chris shook his head, and confessed himself.  “I just got laid off, so Lilly and I will be spending lots of time home in our little apartment this Christmas.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mary said, and barely held her hand back to keep from offering a physical touch to comfort him.  Lilly stopped coughing, but instead of backing out of the hug, she put both arms around Chris and returned the sentiment to him.  Even if she did not entirely understand, she knew being laid off would not be a good thing.

“No, I think maybe it was a gift.  Maybe, if the economy picks up in the new year, I can get a job that actually uses my college degree.  Who knows? I might even find a job I like.”

“It should be one that you love, no?” Mary whispered.

Chris heard, but did not answer.  Instead, he stood, kept hold of Lilly’s hand, and proposed.  “What say we go to Vincinni’s tonight?  What would you like: spaghetti or pizza?”

“And Mary?” Lilly asked with the name, and reached out with her other hand.

“And Mary,” Chris said.  “If she doesn’t have other plans…” he turned to Mary.  “If you would like.”  He did not want Mary to think he was asking her on a date.  He wanted to be sure she knew she could make an honest choice, but Lilly interrupted.

“Mary is family, too,” Lilly said.

“Like family,” Chris admitted, and he thought of Thanksgiving, and that great turkey Mary made.  She called it the first turkey she ever made, but it turned out perfect, so he found the first turkey confession hard to believe.  Still, she asked him, and Lilly to Thanksgiving supper.  She brought everything over to his apartment, turkey and all, since Lilly had a fever that morning, and lay curled up on the couch. Not exactly a date, Chris imagined. Not the same as him asking her out.

Mary looked at Chris with a look that said she would not mind being family; but he did not notice.  They walked, both holding one of Lilly’s hands, and no doubt the people who saw them thought a mom, a dad, and their little girl.

“So, what did you do for an hour and a half?” Chris asked Mary, but Lilly answered.

“We counted the decorations all up and down the street—all the beautiful trees and lights.  And we said Merry Christmas to everyone.  I love Christmas,” Lilly said.  She let out her biggest and best smile, but she felt warm, like she had a little fever even then.

 

Cue: Silver Bells

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Don Jackson.  Ó℗CD Guy Music Inc., 2001

 

After spaghetti, and lots of love and laughter, they walked home together, since Mary lived just across the hall.  Chris picked up his mail on the way and said good night to Mary, who lingered a bit before she went in to her place.  He carried a tired Lilly inside, after a last look at Mary’s door.

Mary closed the door to her rooms gently. She put her back to the door and found a small tear in her eye.

###

Chris turned on the light switch, and made sure his Christmas tree got lit. Lilly had always been a sickly child, but she always got worse during the Christmas season.  Curiously, she also drew strength during the season. The lights and treats, the trees and decorations, the hymns and songs of joy, the giving and receiving gifts of love, and wishing absolutely everyone Merry Christmas always lifted her spirit. They did not have much in the way of decorations in their little apartment, but as Chris explained to Mary, he really had a choice of buying decorations or presents, and he imagined Lilly would be better off with presents, even if they were things she needed, like clothes, and not so many things she might want, like toys.

He set the mail on the table and carried Lilly to her room, where he got out her things to dress for the night.  “Now, get ready for bed,” he told her.  “And don’t forget to brush your teeth.”

Lilly nodded, a tired nod, but had a question to ask.  “Uncle Chris, could we get a real tree this year?”

Chris paused.  He had the big box of decorations his parents put on the tree every year, so a real tree would not cost more than the tree itself.  His artificial one turned ten that year and began to show signs of age. “Maybe we can do that,” he said. “But not tonight.  Now, go get ready for bed.”

Lilly did not argue.  She felt tired, and in a way, she felt more than tired just from a long day.  She did not feel well at all, but she did not want her Uncle Chris to worry.

Chris checked the mail, and found a letter from the court.  He felt curious, but paused first to consider how Lilly came to be his sweet responsibility.

Chris’ brother, Ricky, went into the military, and served overseas in the war. Lilly’s mother, Serissa, who no one ever met, was an American service woman Ricky met at Christmas time.  Those were hard days, as Ricky wrote.  The country they were in did not allow for any Christian celebrations, so Ricky and Serissa had to celebrate on the sly.  Ricky said he lost her after the season, and did not see her again until the following Christmas, when she showed up with a three-month-old baby, Lilly.  Christopher paused in his reflections as Lilly went to brush her teeth,

After that, Serissa became lost in the war zone and was presumed dead.  Curiously, when Chris’ mother checked with the defense department to see if Serissa had family, like Lilly might have other grandparents and such, the Defense Department had no record of her as ever having served, and so they could not give Mom any information—not to say that bloated government agency knew anything.  Mom probably got transferred to the wrong department.  Anyway, Lilly came home with Ricky at one point.  No one could imagine how he worked out the paperwork for that; but then he did another tour and in the end, he came home in a box.  Dad had already passed away from heart trouble, but Mom was still alive back then. She raised Lilly until Lilly nearly turned six.  Chris helped-out as much as he could; but then Mom died suddenly at the age of sixty-three.  At twenty-nine, Chris felt devastated.  He clung to Lilly as much as she clung to him.

He opened the letter from the court.  He read and found some tears.

The court knew he became unemployed, and the Department of Social Services was suing him for custody of Lilly.  Courtney, he thought right away.  She canceled their engagement, because, in her own words, she had no intention of being wet nurse for someone else’s child.  She worked for the company, in the main office, and got him a job there back in the days when they were supposedly in love.  No doubt, she arranged for him to lose his job.  But she made a mistake.  The DSS suit got initiated before he technically got fired; not that the court would care about that technicality.  She probably figured if she waited a week, he might find another job and ruin the whole plan.

“So, what?” he mumbled.  “Does she think she can swoop back into my life once I no longer have a child to care for? Or is this just a vindictive, hateful act?”

“Uncle Chris,” Lilly called.

Chris stood, wiped his tears, and went to Lilly’s room.  He smiled his best smile, and read her a Christmas story.  She fell asleep before they got half-way through.

Holiday Journey 1

Christmas came on a Sunday that year.  The old radio played a mix of Christmas carols and Santa music.  Six-year-old Christopher Shepherd curled up on the couch and marveled at the Christmas tree.  It even smelled like Christmas—evergreen, and Turkey roasting in the kitchen.  He thought happy thoughts, and reveled in the joy of the season.  He felt the love everywhere, and wondered why he could not feel such Christmas spirit all year long.  He felt peace on earth and good will to all with whom God is well pleased.  His older brother apparently felt something quite contrary.  Nine-year-old Ricky had a new dart rifle.  He presently hid behind the Christmas tree where he could poke his head out and shoot the bad guys.  They had plenty of first person shooter video games, but they were not allowed to use them on Christmas morning before church.  Christopher did not mind.  Ricky whined.

Ricky paused in his killing spree.  His eyes got wide and his mouth temporarily opened, when one dart accidentally knocked over the framed picture of Aunt Linda that sat on the wall unit.  He quickly retrieved his dart and put the cracked picture back up, crooked.  His face looked sorry, but his mind worked fast to figure how he could pretend he did not know what happened.

Christopher preferred peace to war—love, and joy to the world, like the angels sang in the Christmas Eve service.  He felt content to sit and look at the most beautiful Christmas tree in the whole world; at least as he imagined it to be.

Mom came over to sit on the couch beside him and she put her arm gently around Christopher’s shoulder.  He smiled and snuggled.  He always smiled on Christmas day.  He normally smiled all day long, and not just for the presents and torn Christmas wrap that littered the floor.  Christmas was the best day of the year, and he wished every day could be like Christmas.

“We need to get moving,” Dad said, as he came half-way down the stairs, and spoke to his wife.

Mom nodded and stood.  “Time to get dressed for church,” she said to the boys.  “Ricky,” she added his name to be sure he heard before she went into the kitchen to check on the turkey, pausing only briefly to straighten out Aunt Linda’s picture, and frown.  Christopher got down from the couch to walk up the stairs.  Ricky put down his gun and ran, shoving Christopher out of the way to be sure he got up the stairs first.  Christopher didn’t mind.  It was Christmas.

 

Cue: Here We Come a Wassailing

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Don Jackson.  Ó℗CD Guy Music Inc., 2001

Cue: opening credits …

…               Christopher Shepherd

…               Merry

…               Plum

…               Roy

…               Lilly

…     as      Courtney/Demon

and

…      as      Santa…

“You wanted to see me Mister Potts?”  Chris stepped into the manager’s office and straightened his shirt, though he imagined he knew what Mister Potts wanted to see him about.  He had been through this before.  He knew the routine.

“Chris,” Mister Potts spoke without looking up from the papers on his desk. “The district office has been reviewing the P & L statements since the summer, and I have been told I have to pare down the staff.”

“I understand,” Chris said, but he could not help the disappointment that crept into his words. “And at Christmas time.”  It caused Mister Potts to look up.

“The company is not responsible for Christmas.  Lots of people don’t even celebrate these days.  I will give you a good recommendation, wherever you go.”

“I do try to show up on time and do my work to the best of my ability.”

“I understand,” Mister Potts said, as his face wrinkled with regret.  “I understand your mother passed away.”

“Three months ago,” Chris said.  “Cancer.” Chris held back his tears.

“I’m sorry.  Your father?” Mister Potts looked up briefly.

“Passed away almost twenty years ago.  Heart.”

Mister Potts lowered his head and shuffled his papers.  “It’s that girl of yours.  You have to call out so much.”  Chris saw the rationalization for the firing scurry across Mister Pott’s face.

“Lilly is my brother’s daughter.  Ricky was military.  He died overseas two years ago.  I guess she is my responsibility now.  We never knew her mother.”  Chris figured it was pointless, but he had to say it.  “I am all she has left.  I need to take care of her.  That is why I need this job.”

“It isn’t my decision.”  Mister Potts steeled himself.  “I’m just the bearer of bad news.  I’m sorry. Good luck.”  Mister Potts went back to his papers and would not look up again. “Your last check will be mailed to you.”

Chris knew better than to argue, and much better than to complain.  “I will be putting you down as a reference, and I thank you for putting in a good word for me.”  He turned and stepped out of the office, closed the door quietly, and breathed.

Being laid off could be a gift, he thought.  Chris sniffed and wiped the tear that came up into the corner of his eye. He thought he might get unemployment through the new year.  The company would probably fight him on the unemployment.  Still, he had some money he inherited when his mother died, though she ate most of it over the years in her reverse mortgage.  He got something from the V. A. to help support Lilly.  He dreaded the idea of going to court, if it came to that.  He knew he needed to insure Lilly had a stable home environment, or lose her, and being laid off twice in the last four years did not make for a good resume.

He did not want to think about it.  His phone buzzed.

R6 Greta: Cleaning Up, part 3 of 3

Three days later, the Nameless god, last of the gods of Aesgard, stood beside Mavis and watched the Wolv transport rise in the atmosphere.  The ogres and trolls Danna brought to protect them for three days while Martok did the repair work were home and safe.  They only had to kill six Wolv that lost patience and tried to eat Mavis or Martok, or whoever worked on the ship at the moment.

The gray-backed Wolv kept most of the Wolv under control for those three days.  There were only forty survivors by then out of the original hundred on the transport, and most of them were women and children, but the gray-backed Wolv understood, even if the others did not, that Earth was one planet that would not be won, even if they mounted a full-scale invasion.  They tried that once already, and failed.  It was not because Earth was full of unbeatable monsters, though from the Wolv perspective it seemed to be, but because the human race had reached just the right sort of primitive development where it had disciplined armies and effective weapons.

“Will they survive?” Mavis asked as she shaded her eyes against the sun for a better look.  The four hundred-year-old transport smoked a little as it rose.

“They should make it out of the solar system. How far they will continue into deep space remains to be seen,” Nameless said.  Nameless felt something then he had not felt in a long time.  He put his arm out toward Mavis in case he needed to draw her under his protective wing.  An old man appeared, in his robe, holding his staff, and Nameless named the man. “Mithras.”

“You have always been a good one to clean up the messes made by the gods,” Mithras said, as he turned his eyes to the diminishing spot in the sky.

“As Lord of the sprites of the earth, air, fire and water, I kind of had to specialize in cleaning up messes.  Even if I don’t know what tomorrow may bring, history is already written and the future is already set.  Keeping that written word on track mostly involves cleaning up messes.”  Nameless blinked and brought the three of them to the place of the ancient dome.

Mithras appeared startled.  “I am not used to being carted around by another god.  That is not easy to do.”

“But it is,” Nameless said.  “This remains Aesgard land, my land, and you are an intruder who does not belong here.”  He turned to face the old man.  “Your place is Persia, and I will not begrudge you the Indus or the Tigris-Euphrates, but you are no longer welcome in the land of Aesgard.”  Nameless traded places with Danna.  “And you must stay out of the West and the old lands of Vanheim as well.”  She traded again with Junior.  “The Near East, Egypt and North Africa are off limits to you.  You have no place among the Jews and the Christians.”  He traded again, and Salacia filled his shoes.  “In fact, the whole Greco-Roman world including the Mediterranean and all the lands and islands around are now off limits to you. Stick to your own place, but not for too long.  You should be on the other side as you know perfectly well.”  Salacia went away so Nameless could come back again.  He whispered to Mavis, “Now I am dizzy.,” but they looked at Mithras and saw him begin to cry.

“I’m afraid,” he said.

“I am not the judge,” Nameless said.  “But I would say on the scale of things, you have not done badly.  You should not fear.  The new way has come and it is full of mercy and grace.”

“But am I subject to the new way, or am I stuck in the old ways?”

“We are all subject, even the gods.  Only you must decide which way you will go and which path you will follow.”  Nameless turned to face the last broken blocks of what was once a magnificent dome in the wilderness.  “Grandfather Odin wanted this to remain as a reminder that the gods should not make promises.  He is gone now.  The old ways are gone now, and this particular reminder of the ancient world should go with them.”  As a true god of the earth, Nameless reached far down below and drew up the great stones of the underworld.  The stone broke through the surface and Nameless shaped it into a bit of a line where it might one day serve to remind him of the past, a reminder no one else would understand.  Then he crumbed the great blocks of stone to dust with a thought and blended the stone dust into the stone from below until they were made one.  Then he stood back and spoke again.

“One day, men will come here.  They will build other domes and rule and worship in this place.”  He stepped back, and Mithras had a thought.

“I spent a hundred years trapped in this place. It would not be a bad place to die.” He looked at Nameless.  It took a moment for Nameless to figure it out, but when he did, he took a step back.

“No way.  Greta killed enough for a lifetime, and Lucius became a horror for her.  She will never get over that.”

“You killed Mithrasis.”

“I made my contribution, and Junior killed your Jupiter, and Gerraint killed the Sun-runner, and Salacia killed the Persian and far too many men with her fury, the fury prompted by Greta who had to kill Lucius.  No, I will do no more killing.”  Nameless stepped back and watched Mithras cry.  “And for the record, don’t even think about trying to manipulate me into doing the job.  I will not be manipulated again, and any innocents you kill will be a mark against you in the eternal ledger, and I don’t believe you can afford that.” Nameless paused to think before he added, “It will be five hundred years before a man convinces a whole nation that the Almighty will somehow reward people for killing the innocent.  That darkness will spread from that day far into the future, but that is not this day.”

Mithras paused in his cry.  “The Don?  She has not had a turn.”

“Danna has her own reluctant and disobedient children to worry about.  You just need to let go of your flesh and blood yourself, and be done with it.  It won’t be so bad, and I am sure your brother Varuna, who loves you, is waiting with arms open to welcome you to paradise.”

Mithras nodded and faded from sight.  Mavis finally opened her eyes and lifted her head to look at the most noble face of the god beside her, and he smiled for her and said, “Let’s go home,” and they returned to the grassy place beside Bragi’s house, this time when no one stood there to watch.  Greta returned with the smile still on her lips.  She took off her red cloak for Mavis to hold, since after all, it had become a warm early spring day.

“And in six to eight weeks,” she said to herself. “I will be welcoming a new life into the world.  Marcus.” She had to get used to the name. “Now Mavis,” she spoke up.  “Let’s go inside.  I feel like cleaning something.”

“As you say.”

END

************************

MONDAY

We begin a Christmas story, in twenty-one posts, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of each week, for the next seven weeks. The final post will be on Christmas day.

A Holiday Journey

The London Symphony Orchestra

And I hope they don’t have lawyers (solicitors) who want to behave stupidly.  The website/blog is not amortized (there is no money).  The stories I post here are free reading, like a Christmas present all year long.  I am sure the CD Guys won’t mind because they will probably sell more CDs.  But unless someone buys one of my books, and there are presently only a few of the first Avalon stories up on the bookseller sites, there is otherwise no compensation for me.  That’s okay.  I hope you enjoy the stories.

Don’t worry, we will get back to the Middle Ages soon enough.  After A Holiday Journey, the plan is to post Avalon, Season Six over twenty-four weeks.  Then, about the beginning of next summer, we will return to Light in the Dark Ages.  Festuscato will meet Beowulf.  Gerraint will search for the Holy Graal.  And Margueritte… She will struggle with ogres and unicorns, fairies and knights, dragons and witches–just about everything a young medieval girl could hope for.

I hope you enjoy your holiday journey.  Merry Christmas in advance.  (Give someone a Christmas hug), and until Monday, Happy Reading.

*

R6 Greta: Cleaning Up, part 2 of 3

When Greta woke, she did not want to move. She rested in Darius’ arms, and she wanted to just stay that way forever.  Sadly, they were in Kurt’s small bed, so they had no room to move. One move of her arm, and Darius woke, and Mavis woke from her place on the floor.  Greta considered that at least her bed was bigger than Padme’s bed where Hans and Berry were sleeping.  Berry slept on top as Han’s blanket, which she would not be able to do much longer, when she began to show.  Kurt and Padme squeezed into bed with Bragi and Karina.  Father slept in the chair, which he did not mind since he often slept sitting up to reduce his snoring.

“My family,” Greta sighed softly, and got up. Darius wanted to hold her some more, and that made her smile and kiss him before she killed that thought.  “We both have work to do,” she said, and he reluctantly understood.

Pincushion, in the other room, had already started cooking things that smelled wonderful.  That was what woke her, and Greta knew the others would come stumbling out of the back room soon enough.

“I have work, I don’t know about you,” Darius said. “We will probably spend the next week burying the dead, and Hadrianus and the elders of Porolissum have plans to turn our temporary battements into a permanent city wall.  They want it big and made out of stone.  I have to write letters to Marcus and the emperor telling them everything that happened here and about our plans.  I am going to ask for a second legion in the province since we are sticking out the way we are into enemy territory and have the longest, most indefensible border in the whole empire.”

“I understand,” Greta said as she sat beside him and took and squeezed his hand.  “And the enemy?”

“We watched and got reports in the dark that they all moved off.  I suspect by this point there won’t be one in sight.  They had orders to wake me if that was not so.”

“Just as well,” Greta said, and pecked at his lips.

Greta paused while Darius seriously kissed her.

“I got that feeling that you were about to go somewhere,” he said.

Greta nodded, but Pincushion interrupted.  “Not before breakfast.”

Then Mavis interrupted. “Not without me.”  And Greta sat and waited as others came out to join them, and they all ate wonderfully well, and too much.

After breakfast, Greta took Darius out the front door, Mavis following, and Greta explained her intentions.  “I may be gone a few days.  I don’t know how badly the Wolv transport may be broken.”

“All right.  But come home as soon as you can.  I am going to need your wisdom to craft the letter concerning General Pontius and his followers.”

Greta shook her head.  “Mithras will probably keep the cult alive as long as he is alive, but it won’t be the same.  The rituals will become just that, rituals, and the compulsion to devotion will be gone. I hope he will find the courage and be willing to end his journey in the next hundred and fifty years or so.”

“You were shaking your head?”  Darius knew her.  She had something else in mind.

Greta smiled and tapped on his chest.  “You, Mister Governor who is not yet retired, need to work on turning the Goths and Slavs into serious friends and allies for the future.”

“Not the Celts?”

Greta shook her head again.  “I have a feeling the Lazyges may become ornery in the next twenty or thirty years and the Celts may try to blend in with the Latin population of Dacia, and maybe extend the western border a little to include them, for their own protection.”

“So they should be like citizens of the Province?”

“Ask Rhiannon if you can catch her, but I think so, more or less.”

Darius nodded and stepped back, ready to move out when they saw Alesander, Briana, Hermes, Vedix and Bogus coming down the road, a loaded down Stinky trailing along behind.

“No, no,” Greta said.  “Not this time,” and she went away so Danna could take her place, and Danna grabbed Mavis’ hand and they vanished from that place altogether.

###

Danna was able to make sure no one watched when she and Mavis appeared just outside the Great Hall of the Governor’s residence in Ravenshold. Danna traded back to being Greta before anyone noticed, and Mavis let go of Greta’s hand so she could carry Greta’s red cloak.

“Mother,” Greta called as she stepped into the hall, and for one moment it felt like she never left.  Mother was right there, feeding Marta, and Gaius sat on the floor with Selamine, playing with his wooden soldiers.  That moment ended with shouts and running

Greta had to kneel down to hug Gaius, who got there first.  She felt sure she could not lift the big five-year-old in her condition. Fortunately, Selamine scooped him up so Greta could stand and hug her mother who wept.  Then she picked up Marta with a word.

“Careful.  Ugh. You don’t want to hurt the baby.”

“Greta!”  Mother noticed.  “Boy or girl. Oh, but now you are home, and just in time I would say.”

“I hope it is a boy,” Gaius piped up.

“I hope it is a girl,” Marta said, just to be contrary.

“Sibling rivalry?  But they have gotten so big.  Mother, I have missed so much and I will never get it back.”

“Hush,” Mother took Greta’s hand and helped her to the table where she returned Marta to her chair and took one for herself. “You are home now.  That is all that matters.”

“But I am not home now,” Greta said.  “I am not really here.  There is still unfinished business, but I missed my children so much.” Gaius wriggled out of Selamine’s arms so he could come up and put his hands on his mother’s thigh and look up into her face.  She tussled his hair.  “He is starting to look like his father.”

“I look like you,” Marta said and reached her hands out for another hug.  She was dark haired like a Celt or Roman, not very light blond, and she had a skinny face instead of Greta’s round face, and she had clear skin without a freckle, so the truth was she did not look at all like Greta.  Greta imagined Marta would grow up to be a beauty, but Greta hugged her and she scooted Gaius up on to her lap and only moaned a little.

“What do you mean you are not really here?” Mother was thinking.

“I mean word has not reached here yet, but in a couple of days, riders will arrive from the north and say Porolissum is under attack. Well, it already happened and everyone is all right.  Hans and Berry are home safe, and Bragi, Karina and their children are all safe. The legion from Apulum with some help from our Celtic friends and others defeated the enemy and drove them off.”

“Your father?”

“Father is fine,” Greta smiled.  “And I hope we will all be home soon, safe and sound. and you know what?”

Gaius knew enough to say, “What?”

Greta talked to him. and poked his little nose. “Your aunt Berry is going to have a baby too.”

“What?”  Mother sounded surprised.  “But they are just children.”

“They are growing up, and so are my children. Gaius is getting to be a big boy.” Gaius squirmed for a more comfortable seat and Greta moaned and smiled at the same time.

“Now, that’s enough.  Selamine.”  Mother spoke and Selamine picked up Gaius again.

“Mother, I really have to go,” Greta said as she stood. She kissed Marta, her mother, and Gaius, though Gaius turned shyly from the kiss and buried his face in Selamine’s shoulder.  Greta started toward the door, Mavis on her heels, and she thought to distract her mother with a question.  “How is that new tutor, P. Cassius Andronicus working out?”

Mother had to stop walking to think a minute. “Not much for him to do, so far,” she said, but by then she came a dozen steps behind.  By the time she got out the door to the Great Hall, Greta had vanished with her handmaid and her red cloak.

R6 Greta: Cleaning Up, part 1 of 3

Greta took her seat on the battements and stewed all afternoon.  She kept her eyes on the enemy in the distance and fretted.  There did not seem to be much movement, not much to see, but they were still there.  They did not look to be leaving anytime soon, and that worried her.  She knew she should have been tending the wounded. That was her real job, not the Kairos’ job, it remained Greta’s job, but she felt bloated, and rotten like the weather, and drained from a day that seemed too long already.  She slept briefly in her chair, a cold afternoon nap, but woke up covered in blankets, a pillow on the ground, which she guessed had once been put behind her head.  Someone cared.

Pincushion made her eat some soup which was not hard because it tasted really good, and Greta had the good sense not to ask what was in it.  Then Pincushion, Karina and Snowflake went off to play with the children.  Greta got grumpy.  She missed her children.

Goldenrod and Oreona checked on her and told her Ulladon was sleeping in the deeps.  They were happy that things went so well, but Greta added, “so far,” and she did not feel sure how well things really went.  The reports she got in passing were a thousand defenders dead and a thousand who would be dead soon enough.  Darius told her there were as many as five hundred or so, a rough estimate, who might be saved if the Roman physicians and various tribal healers could hack off enough limbs before they got infected.  Greta knew in practice, more than half of them would die as well.

The rest of the men were in good spirits, her Father told her.  She listened. He said beyond their casualties, there were as many as a thousand more among the various groups of people who would survive and heal, but who were wounded seriously enough to where they would not be fighting much.  He said both Hans and Bragi fought well and she should be proud of her brothers.  He said he was glad Mother stayed with the children, far away from there.  Icechip, still riding on Father’s shoulder, picked up something of Greta’s distress.

“I never knew what war was like before.  I’m sorry so many had to die,” he said, and it sounded heart felt.

Greta sniffed and turned her back on them and Father left with a word that he would check on her again, later.  She missed her children.

Mavis went off with Hermes and Captain Ardacles’ troop to clean up the mess, as she called it.  Wagons went out over the field all afternoon collecting the dead and wounded.  By two o’clock, it began to drizzle softy and Rhiannon showed up.  She said nothing, but made something like a beach umbrella against the rain so Greta could continue to sit and stay dry.  It felt like Rhiannon wanted to say something, but she did not.  She looked sad when she disappeared into the misty rain.

Vedix and Bogus came and sat with her for a while. Neither said much, not even to each other, and after a time they quit the rain and went to find shelter. Alesander and Briana showed up moments later and Briana had an announcement.

“We want to get married.”

“And this is news?” Greta asked.

“Her father has given his blessing if it is all right with you,” Alesander said, and kissed Briana on the cheek.  She responded with a loving and happy face.

“I have said a thousand times, I will not be the decider of such things.”  Greta sounded angry, though she did not mean to be.  “You know what marriage is.  The union between one man and one woman is not to be entered into lightly, but if it is what you want, it is not my place to approve or object.  Personally, I wish you nothing but happiness, but you make your own decisions.”

“So, yes?” Briana asked.

“Yes.  Go on. Have fun.  Get fat.  Have babies. Scat.”  Greta snorted and looked across the field, though in the drizzle, she could hardly see the enemy.  She knew Briana and Alesander stood and kissed for a while, but she ignored them and paid no attention when they left, holding tight to each other and laughing at the rain.

It became four, or close enough.  The sky got ready to turn a dreary afternoon into the equivalent of an early night, when Greta thought she finally saw some movement in the distant camps.  She listened in her mind and caught words first from Longbow, the elf.

“The Scythian chief has convinced the others to make one last try.  He says they damaged the defenders in the first attacks and now the defenders are weak and ready to fall.  He says they would all be cowards if they ran away.  One good drive against the center, and the Romans will break and fall apart is what he says.  He knows the Legion in Porolissum is the only serious Roman presence in the whole province, and once they break through there will be nothing to stand in their way all the way to the Danube.  All of the outsider tribes are leery, but the Scythian has convinced half of the Sarmatians to lead the charge.  That is about five thousand lances.”

“The other tribes will follow,” Treeborn the fairy King interrupted.  “They are preparing as we speak.”

Lord Horns added one thought.  “Though they no longer feel the urging of Mithras, I think the Scythian chief is interested in what he calls the mountain of gold that the Romans have mined and guarded so carefully.”

“Don’t I know it,” Portent peeped, and Greta cut off the long-distance conversation.  Now she had a headache and was not sure if it would turn into a migraine.

Greta stood alone when she stood.  She looked over at the men’s side where Tribune Hadrianus had a tarp erected against the rain.  The constant drizzle actually stopped an hour earlier, but the sky remained as dark and dreary as it had been all day, and water continued to drip now and then off the edge of the tarp where the water had collected.

Darius, who spent the day watching her from a distance and feeling powerless to comfort her, noticed right away when she stood. Cecil saw and pointed.  Olaf, Venislav and Hadrianus all looked and genuine concern covered their faces.  “Darius,” Greta called, and he came to hear what she had to say.  The others followed out of curiosity,

“They are preparing for another attack.  The Scythian chief will not let them wait until the morning for fear they may desert in the night.  They believe the legion here is the only thing standing between them and the riches of Dacia.  They believe the legion is the only form of Roman power in the province. They are wrong.”  Greta scooted up to Darius and gave him a quick kiss with a word.  “Pardon me, my love.”  She went away, and Amphitrite, the one worshiped as Salacia by the Romans, the wife of Neptune, god of the sea, came to stand in her place.  Olaf, Cecil and Venislav all took a step back.  Hadrianus looked too stunned to move, but Darius grinned and hid his grin as Salacia shouted at the sky.

“Fluffer, Sprinkles, Bubbles, get ready for a wild ride.” Salacia raised her hands, reached into the sky and took hold of the clouds.  She caused a great wind to blow over her shoulder, and another to come pouring over the distant mountains.  They crashed over the enemy camps with hurricane force, and Salacia squeezed her hands.  Torrents of rain fell and whipped through the wind.  It drove the men back and some men drowned from the fury of the liquid assault. A number of tornados formed from the contrary winds, and men panicked.

Many men scattered and fell to the ground in fear, or were lifted by the winds and slammed again on the ground or blown for miles. Tents were ripped up and shredded. Horses stampeded.  Some men, horses, wagons and equipment got caught in the tornadoes and tossed away, sometimes landing on other men.  When Salacia really got things going, she began to dance with glee on the battlement.  The wind ripped up whole trees and threw around wagon-sized boulders. The rain came with hail the size of bowling balls and sleet that fell in whole sheets of sharp edges.  Then at once, Salacia decided it was enough, and it all stopped, instantly.

Salacia let her face appear on the clouds where she could look down on the devastation she caused and the survivors who cowered all over the ground.  They looked so puny and helpless, but Salacia thought there still might be something to say. She said two words.  “Go home,” and the words were not only heard and understood by all, but they reverberated for a moment inside thousands of minds. Then Salacia returned in her power to the battement on which she physically stood.

“Forgive me father, for I have sinned,” Salacia said, almost too softy to hear, but she grinned as she thought of Festuscato, and she frowned as she thought of all those ships and sailors who died at sea when her temper flared after Poseidon did something stupid.  Then she smiled again as she remembered her cult had always been one to care for the widows and orphans of the sea, a small payment for her guilt, and she thought of her friends and her own children, Triton, Proteus and Nyssa.  She frowned again when she remembered poor Orion, and how she lost him in a terrible accident, and even as a goddess, she could not do anything to save him.  She went away and let Greta return, and Greta reached up to Darius for another kiss, which Darius was happy to give.

“Sorry love,” she said, and with one hand on her belly and without another word, she turned and walked slowly back to Karina’s house where she had the best sleep she had in years.  When she woke up the next morning, there was not an enemy to be found, and she finished Salacia’s thought about children by admitting she missed her own.

R6 Greta: The Sun Runner, part 3 of 3

Gerraint put away his sword, and when the titan fell dead on his face, he leapt up on the titan’s back, grabbed the lance, and finished pulling it all the way through.  He thanked Hephaestus for the fingerless gloves that protected the palms of his hands, because the lance felt as hot as fire itself.  Grassly had a bucket of water, as Rhiannon instructed him, and Gerraint stuck the point in the water and watched it steam for a minute.

By the time Stinky arrived, Manannan also arrived, and he had a pouch in his hand.  “Poppy seeds,” Manannan said.  “To help it sleep.”  He tied the pouch around the lance point and held it until the lance stopped wiggling.

“Don’t go far away,” Gerraint commanded as was his nature as a king and a knight of the Round Table.

“Never far,” Manannan insisted, before he and the lance vanished.

“Lord,” Grassly shouted to him as Gerraint mounted the mule.  “The knights and the enemy are about to meet.”

Gerraint said nothing, but he did not want to look. He felt sorry for the Sarmatians being, by comparison, such amateurs.  Gerraint heard the titan deflate and saw it start to liquefy.  He saw the spark of life leave the titan body and shoot up to the man-made ridge where the Pater, Mithras undoubtedly still stood.  He thought about the thousands of men on each wing that were about to press the attack, but in the center of the field, with the gnomes all but invisible, it looked like only one man stood.  One woman, he thought, and traded back to Greta’s life.  He brought back her dress and red cloak, and she reached out to pet her mule.

“Walk gently, Stinky,” Greta said, though Stinky seemed inclined to do that very thing, and several of the gnomes accompanied her to help.

Greta almost got back to the Roman lines when she had company.  A man appeared out of thin air.  He rode on a plain horse and said nothing.  Greta knew who it was without having to look, and for all of her efforts, she still did not like the man.  It was a personality thing, she decided.

“I wonder if this was how Mary felt riding into Bethlehem,” Greta said.  She shifted to ride side-saddle, and that relieved a bit of the pressure.  Lucius made no response, but Greta knew Lucius had no doubt to whom she referred.

Greta had to dismount when she reached the ridge fortification.  No way she could force her mule to climb that.  The gnomes brought Stinky.  Greta held her belly as she climbed.  The man beside her dismounted when she did, and he saved the horse by letting it vanish and go back to where it came from.  He offered to help Greta up the hill, but she withdrew.  She did not want him to touch her.

Up top, Greta found the women standing to one side, Rhiannon out front.  The men all stood on the other side, with Darius, Manannan and Alesander keeping a wary eye on the man in their midst.  Mithras stood alone, in the same spot where he had been when he first arrived. The whip had gone, but his staff remained, and he leaned heavily on it.  He looked every bit like a very old man who suddenly felt his age.  Greta stopped, said nothing, and looked at the man as he spoke.

“Apollo prophesied that the seven pieces of Mithras would not be made as one until time herself lifted her hand against them. For a while, at first, I though the seven pieces meant I would have seven children.  Even when I became shattered and I guessed Apollo was talking about you, the Kairos time, that did not make sense.  You were a man, turning back an invasion of Wolv and fighting against Trajan and his weapons in Mesopotamia.  Early on, when Mithrasis and I trapped each other in the north, I managed to persuade a young man to come north in search of his grandmother. I thought, just in case you came this way, you might make the effort to free your half-spirit of the earth, and him being only a half spirit, I knew I could hang on to him and force you to come. But then Mithrasis brought down a Wolv transport and I became forced to turn that man into a dragon for my own protection.

Suddenly, you were born a woman in this place, and I started to put it together, but I was trapped in the ancient dome and it seemed impossible to reach you.  Then, entirely by chance or as you Christians would say, by providential grace, I discovered that my soldier-self, my Mars, felt ready to rebel.  He tried to hide among the Romans, but I got word to him.  He is the one who told Mithrasis about the leftover guns of Trajan that were hidden in the Temple Mount of Ravenshold. But when I saw how her plans failed so spectacularly, I truly began to despair.  Then my soldier-self told young Hans and Berry where Berry could find her father.  The rest you know, except let me say this, that I have never known such love or good company than I had these last two years with Hans and Berry, Fae and Hobknot. You, my dear, are a very lucky woman to have such a family to love.”  Mithras wiped one eye where a tear wanted to fall.

Greta said nothing as Lucius stepped forward to face the man, Mithras.  “It is time for us to go,” he said.  “As was made clear to me often enough on our journey north; the old way has gone.  The new way has come.  The time for the gods is over and we must go over to the other side.” Lucius said no more as he reached out and hugged the old man.

“No, no.”  Greta understood right away, and she felt awful about it and wanted to protest. She looked at her faithful Centurion, Alesander, but he could only look away.   Darius would have done it for her, but he could not.  Only she could do the deed.  Manannan and Rhiannon showed no expression.  Mavis cried.

With one hand on her belly and tears in her eyes, Greta called to her long knife, Defender.  It appeared in her hand, and she shoved it into Lucius’ back where his heart ought to be.  Neither Lucius nor Mithras made a sound.  Greta pulled Defender back out, and Lucius began to crumble.  They saw a flash of light, and Mithras stood alone on the ridge top.  Greta cried great big tears while Darius ran to her, to hold her and offer every ounce of comfort he had.

“I am whole again,” Mithras said quietly.  “I must think about the other side.”

“You can do it,” Greta interrupted her cry.  “You have the courage.  I have seen it.”

Mithras made no answer.  He simply faded until he vanished.  Curiously, Danna’s disobedient children who themselves had yet to let go of this life had also gone from sight.

Darius still cooed when Greta pushed back.  “Oh, but Darius,” she pointed.  The enemy on the wings were starting the attack, and though the Sarmatians withdrew completely from the battle, perhaps because they concluded the magic turned against them was too great for victory, there were some seven thousand Scythians determined to get some revenge for their beating the day before.  That still added up to some twenty-one thousand men attacking some sixteen thousand human defenders.  Greta knew, if it was not for the addition of her little ones, the defenders in their bunkers and behind their make-shift walls and ridge would be hard pressed to fight off such an attack.  Greta buried her face in Darius’ chest.  She did not want to watch.  She did not do well in panic situations.

The Goths on the left, with their Roman and Celtic allies fought like the berserkers Greta called them.  As they showed no quarter and drove back the Lazyges and Outsider Dacians with their fury, the Romans and Celts were impressed that these men were serious about war, and very good at it.

On the right, the Slavs, with their Celts and Romans had a bit more difficulty, in part because the Slavs kept attacking, like they were the aggressors, not the defenders.  Small pockets of Slavs kept getting surrounded by the enemy, and it took some serious work to rescue them.  When they did, they usually found a pocket of Slavs surrounded by dead bodies, and the Slavs laughing and ready to do it again.  Indeed, Venislav seemed to laugh the whole time, even when he hacked an enemy in two.  The Romans and Celts came away from there thinking that these Slavs were warriors and great fighters, but also insane.  Eventually the enemy figured this out as well, and when they withdrew, no doubt some felt they were lucky to get away from those mad men.

In the center, Drakka, Bragi and the men of Porolissum were backed up by the Romans and Celts.  Nudd and his brothers fought there, and Hans finally got to use that sword. Father was in charge, and when the Scythians dismounted outside the trenches and spikes, he charged, Slav style. The Scythians were not ready for that turning of the table, and they withdrew.  Father ran his people back to their wall and bunkers, before the arrows started to fly again.

Father pulled that off twice, but by the third time he figured he might be pushing his luck and kept his men back to await the attack. It proved wise, because the third attack came with less men on foot and more men still in the saddle firing arrows to keep the Roman and Celtic heads down.  Once the Scythians on foot got near enough to be in the way, the Scythians had to hold their arrows, and many of them dismounted and joined the attack. They got close, too close for many of the defenders, but this time, Father used his advantages.  He let loose the goblins, the trolls, ogres and dwarfs with their big axes and their most frightening aspect.  Most of the Scythians screamed, turned and ran to be picked off by elf and fairy archers, who rarely missed.  Those who did not run right away became meat for the grinder. By the time the Romans moved out in formation, backed up by the Celts and Bragi’s locals, they only had some cleaning up to do.

Greta yelled at her father the minute she heard. How dare he put her little ones in that kind of danger.  They were there, kind enough to back up the humans.  They were not there to take the lead.  Some of them got killed, and Greta did not talk to her father for a whole day. The only thing that made it palatable was the fact that the little ones all praised her father for what he did, and thought things like it was about time they got the chance to really fight, and said things about how they hated to always have to be in the background.

“You’re all crazy,” Greta shouted.

“So I keep saying,” Venislav agreed.  “Your sprites are hard to trust and all crazy in the head.”  Coming from Venislav, that did not help.

************************

MONDAY

Greta is angry and upset, and the Scythians refuse to leave the battlefield, even though they know the tide has turned against them.  Greta dreads what she will have to do to clean up the mess.  Monday: Cleaning Up.  Until then, Happy Reading.

*

R6 Greta: The Sun Runner, part 2 of 3

As the light grew in the valley, the slow, sneaky movement of the Wolv became evident.  Alesander pointed out the closest four out of six, and when they were ready, he said, “Fire.”  The Wolv were caught unprepared, and it took a moment before they crouched down and returned fire.  The return fire did not get through the screen of the goddess, though there were some good shots.  Sadly, the fire from the people had little impact on the shielded Wolv, except as a distraction.

The elves and fee were able to get close, and when the shuttle had a small explosion and began to smoke and send sparks on to the field, every Wolv eye turned to see.  The elves struck with five or six spears on each Wolv.  The wooden spear handles did not conduct the electricity of the shield, but the metal spear points strained the shield generator until it burned out.  The unprotected Wolv then died from multiple wounds.

When the two Wolv abandoned the shuttle, being without wrist shields, they got easily cut down by the fairies.  Two fairies, being the size of men in order to draw their blades, were sliced by Wolv claws in the exchange, one in the arm, and one right through his chest protector; but the wounds were not deep.  Eight elves were shot in the attack on the six Wolv in the field, three fatally, and the other five seriously, but the five would heal in the next hundred years.

The smidgens, elves and fairies pulled back right away once the work was done, and good thing because the moment the sun broke the horizon, people had to shield their eyes.  A magnificent, dazzling white horse came racing over the far ridge. It glowed with a light as bright as the sun, and Junior had to look to make sure Ulladon did not turn to stone.

“They are all fine,” Rhiannon assured him as Junior turned his eyes again toward the horse.  It left the ground and flew, which reminded him of the twin horses of Apollo that drew the chariot of the sun.  It landed at a spot beside the Wolv shuttle, and stomped the ground several times before it opened its mouth and began to roar.  As it roared, it changed shape.  The horse stood on its hind legs, which thickened to ogre-like legs, and its front legs became arms.  Its body grew to a titanic size as the light it gave out faded and blended into the appearance of the body being on fire, especially in the eyes.  The horse nose diminished as the head ballooned.  The pointed ears remained, but softened, as the eyes moved to the front and the teeth became long and sharp.  What had been the horse became the titan from the cave, and it quickly grabbed the whip it carried on its belt.

The whip cracked three times, and the ground spit fire. Ten thousand Sarmatians in their armor, on their armored horses, carrying their deadly lances lined up far behind the titan, ready to charge.  Five thousand Scythians prepared to back them up.  The other combined tribes on the left and the right prepared seven thousand men each to attack the flanks.  It was close to double the number of defenders, and the enemy still had men in reserve.

The Sun-runner, Heliodrom, the titan stepped a few steps forward and cracked the whip, which somehow reached all the way to the line of defenders.  One Roman burned to a crisp.  One Celt burned next.  The third crack turned a Goth to ash, to blow away on the wind.  The fourth crack killed a Slav.  The fifth crack had been meant for Junior.  Junior saw it in the titan’s eyes, but a man in a long cloak with his hood up and a staff in his hand stepped up and raised his arm.  The whip curled around the arm and the man yanked the whip free of the titan’s grasp.  The titan roared, and the Sarmatians began to move forward at a slow walk.

A second man showed up on the other side of Junior before Junior could say anything to the man in the hood.  This second man looked tall and lean, a swimmer’s build. His skin appeared gray-green and moist, covered only in seaweed.  He held something in his hand and held it out to Junior as he spoke from behind steel-gray eyes filled with death for Junior’s enemies.

“The Lance of Lugh,” the man said.  “And the apples taken by Apollo have been found and returned to the island of Avalon of the Apples where they can be guarded against misuse.”

Junior took the lance, said thank you to Manannan, Celtic god of the sea, and turned to the man in the cloak.  “You thought to make ambrosia with the apples of youth and healing.  You thought to make new gods for yourself.  Now, that will be impossible.”

“So I gather,” the cloaked man said in a familiar voice, because of course it was the Pater, Mithras himself.

Junior called for his own shield to go with the lance, and he caused the likeness of a dragon to appear on the shield.  Then he called for a plain white fairy weave tunic to wear over his armor, and he caused a dragon emblem to appear on the tunic as well.  “In honor of Fae and Berry’s father who sacrificed himself to bring down the Raven of Mithras.  All of the elves, dark and light, the dwarfs and the fee should have dragon tunics. It will help the Goths, Slavs, Romans and Celts remember who is on their side.”  Junior smiled toward the ladies before he turned to the task.

“Stinky.”  Junior called and whistled, and the mule trotted up, a true saddle with stirrups on its back over a blanket of white with red crosses on it, much like the knights of the lance. That was the thought that ran through Junior’s mind, though he honesty imagined more of a warhorse.  Stinky ignored the gods that stood to Junior’s left and right.  It butted right up to Junior, and Junior stroked the mule’s nose and instructed it before he traded paces with Gerraint. Gerraint mounted.  Junior had called to his armor to replace Greta’s dress when he first came, so all Gerraint had to fetch was his helmet.  He got ready, but he thought to add one thing out loud to whomever might be listening.  “Go for the face and eyes.  Maybe you can distract the titan this time so I can get close enough.”

Gerraint and the mule walked down the front of the man-made ridge and carefully went out beyond the trenches and spikes.  He paused there and saw the Sarmatians were still a long way off, coming from the hill on the other side of the valley. The horses still walked, though the line already looked a bit ragged.  It would be a couple more minutes before they started to trot, and they would trot for a little way before they galloped and charged.  The ragged line reminded Gerraint that these were semi-nomadic men, and mostly farmers.  Arthur’s men were also mostly farmers, but these men and their horses did not have the rigorous training of the RDF.  All the same, they were formidable warriors when they went into battle. The Sarmatians invented heavy cavalry several centuries before the Middle Ages.

Gerraint paused long enough to be distracted.  He saw the look on the titan’s face, when the laughter stopped and got replaced with surprise.  Stretching out to Gerraint’s left and right, only a Titan size away, were what looked like thousands of knights of the lance. Stinky started to walk as Gerraint yelled in his mind.  “Yin Mo!” Then he saw something, or several somethings appear around the titan’s head.  They were giant images of the faces of all the ancient sun gods, and they swirled slowly around the titan’s head and looked down on the Helios with disapproval.  Gerraint made out the faces of Apollo from Olympus, Utu from Samaria, Ameratsu from far away Nippon, and Lugh as well, and he saw the titan raise his hands against the accusing faces.  Stinky started to trot when the knights trotted, and Gerraint thought real loud “Sunstone!”  He imagined having words with the elf wizard, but then he had to focus on what he was doing.

Gerraint told the lance to slay the titan, and no one else.  The lance had the reputation of an older dragon, slow to obey once it started to feed. He tucked the lance up under his arm. He knew the work well.  He also knew Stinky would never reach a thundering gallop, like a real war horse, but the mule’s size, weight and strength would make up for much of that when they rammed the lance home.

Grassly and his gnomes were out in force, all but invisible in the winter grass under the cloud filed sky.  The knights of the lance were spaced around Gerraint to give the titan a wide berth, but at the last second, the titan noticed one of the oncoming knights headed right at him.  He reacted too late, got one of Grassly’s arrows in his left eye and got the Lance of Lugh shoved up under his ribs.

The lance was hungry after being on the wall for centuries.  Gerraint tried to hold on, but the lance twisted in his hands.  It felt like a ravenous beast let loose to devour the very fires of the sun.  It drank the titan’s blood of fire and far from being burned by the sun, it remembered when the fire of the sun carried it to victory after victory.

Despite the special saddle, stirrups and all, Gerraint got knocked completely off Stinky’s back.  He landed hard on the field.  He got shaken, but not hurt, and he rose quickly and pulled his sword, Wyrd, in case he needed to finish the job.  He watched as the faces of the old gods faded from sight, and the arrows of Grassly’s gnomes, that had no affect or bounced off at first, were now turning the titan into a true pincushion.  Gerraint smiled at the name for one second before he looked for Stinky. The mule skirted the titan and galloped with the knights of the lance for several hundred yards without Gerraint, before it stopped and started trotting back.  Gerraint only then looked up at his opponent.

The titan had been completely blinded by then, but the eyes were glazed over, and Gerraint watched as the titan fell to his knees.  The Lance of Lugh pushed out the back as the spearhead pulled the butt of the lance all the way into the titan’s body.  When the lance head became exposed, he heard a great moaning sound that echoed across the fields.  It came either from the titan’s lips, though the lips did not move, or from the titan’s body, like the slow leak of air escaping, or it was the lance itself roaring.

R6 Greta: The Sun Runner, part 1 of 3

Greta wore her red cloak to the battlements and pulled it tight against the cold.  The moon had set and the stars were hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. Greta expected another cold rain, and maybe some thunder and lightning to go with it.  She knew she had eight weeks left before the baby, but she felt plenty big already and her ankles started swelling again in the cold weather.

“I can’t see a thing,” Greta confessed. Fortunately, Ulladon stood there to do the seeing.  Mavis came with the extra blankets, and Briana stood there as well, she said, to be Greta’s bodyguard against so many strange men.

“The enemy camps are stirring,” Ulladon announced. “But after not sleeping much for a second night, I imagine they were stirring all night.”

“You can see that?” Briana squinted into the dark.

“Too far.”  Ulladon shook her head.  “Even if my eyes pierce the darkness as they do, I don’t have fairy eyes.  That is too far to see details.  My husband Crag, Rotwood and others are sending me information and pictures.  I can even smell the bacon cooking, which is making me hungry.  Time for my supper.”

“That may be our bacon,” Alesander interrupted as he came out of the bunker.  Soldiers brought a dozen chairs, now being used to the women and their needs. Alesander stayed to hug Briana and took the seat beside her.  They stared off into the dark, but only for a moment before they reached for each other’s hand.

“My bacon,” Pincushion said, as Rhiannon, Pincushion and a big fire appeared on the top of that man-made ridge.  Pincushion had an oversized pan of eggs scrambling on one side of the fire, a whole side of bacon frying on the other side, and in the middle of the fire, she had a cauldron full of oatmeal that she called mush. Rhiannon squeezed into a seat between Greta and Ulladon and announced that she liked bacon.

“You missed lunch yesterday,” Pincushion scolded. “I felt it my duty to see you got a good breakfast.”

“Hush,” Greta said.  A mist rose up from the ground to meet the cloud covered sky.  It looked like the last gasp of the few piles of snow that held on here and there around the town.  Greta heard whispers at first, but they became clear when two small clouds drifted close and spoke.

“Lady, we are here.”

“Here we are, Lady.”

“Fluffer and Sprinkles,” Greta identified them. “Is Bubbles with you?”

“He is high up above.”

“He is not down below.”

“Good.”  Greta said, and considered her options before she spoke.  “I would appreciate it if you kept the sky covered and the sun hidden today. I fear after yesterday’s disasters, the Heliodrom will show himself, and I want the source of his strength hidden as far as possible.  Keep Bubbles and his people with you if you can.  I will let you know when to let him fall and drive into the face of the enemy.”

“That will be hard to do, do you think Sprinkles?”

“Yes Fluffer, hard for us.  The heavier we get, the more we leak.”

“Some will leak when we get heavy, but we will try.”

“We will try our best.”

“That is all I can ask,” Greta said.  “Now fly into your sky and give my greetings to the Lord of the Rainclouds and Lord Zephyrus of the winds.”

“We will.”

“We most certainly will.”

Fluffer and Sprinkles floated up and disappeared rapidly in the dark, while Darius, Bogus, Hermes and Vedix came down the ridge, followed by Stinky the mule.  “Was that our sky friends?” Hermes asked, and Greta answered affirmative while Mavis got up to fetch him and sit him beside herself.

Vedix leaned over to speak to Briana.  “I left Nudd with his brothers.  They are all jealous that he is married to Heidi, a sweet girl, and they are still just engaged.”

“Pincushion,” Bogus interrupted.  “You hover over that cauldron and the fire in the night like the veritable Witch of Endor, or maybe Madea herself.”

“Please, no,” Greta said with a roll of her eyes. “But maybe the Witch of Balmoor.”

“Who was that?”  Rhiannon started to ask before she shook her head and answered her own question.  “Someone not born yet.”

Pincushion started to serve up, and as usual, she cooked more than anyone could possibly eat, even after Father came with Cecil, Olaf, Venislav and Tribune Hadrianus; and Olaf and Venislav both did their best, like they were in an eating contest.  The men went off to their own meeting place when the Lords Treeborn, Horns, Crag and General Redbeard arrived.  The Ladies Oreona and Goldenrod took their seats, and Karina came without the children because she said at least one utterly, ordinary human being ought to be there.

A couple of women got up and hugged her, as did Pincushion when she brought her some eggs.  The rest encouraged her, verbally, and told her what good children she had. They were presently with Liselle, Drakka’s wife, “And she laughs when Padme and I talk about all of you.”

“Oh,” Mavis spoke with a glance at Greta.  “We are not exactly a secret, but in general, the less humans that know about us, the better.”

“Those of us who went with Greta to the Land of the Lost know,” Briana explained.  “And I understand my father of the Eagle Clan, Olaf the Goth, Venislav of Moldav and Tribune Hadrianus know because they have to.”

“Olaf and Venislav met us in the Venedi town.” Greta reminded her about Bonebreaker being there.

“Oh yes, and Darius and your father know, but I understand your father just learned about it since being here.”

Greta nodded.  “I kept it from him for years, and Mother still has no idea.”

“But why should you trust me?” Karina asked.

“You and Bragi and your children are family, with Hans and Berry and whatever children they have.  My sprites can’t help caring about all of you.  It comes as natural as a bird on the wing or a flower in bloom. For the sprites, it is what the storyteller calls a no-brainer.”

“Snowflake would not go to Liselle’s except in her big size,” Karina said, like now it made sense.

“Being big for a long time is hard for a fairy,” Goldenrod explained.  “But I am sure she will hide to take a break and won’t let Liselle see her in her natural small fairy form, I hope.”  She turned to Greta.  “She is quite young.”

“I wouldn’t mind if Liselle saw,” Karina interjected. “She might not laugh so hard next time,”

“I don’t mind if Liselle knows, or Drakka for that matter, him being Bragi’s best friend,” Greta said.  “You know, I had a crush on Drakka when I was young.  It shows you how stupid I can be.”

Karina turned away to hide her laugh.  The others protested, but softly, and mostly they looked over at the men who appeared to be pacing, impatient, and morose, thinking about the coming day.  The women laughed and talked, and tried not to tell too many jokes about the men, and generally had a good time, while they waited for something to happen.

###

Mavis and Oreona heard it first with their good elf ears. The sun was due to rise but Ulladon did not worry as long as the clouds were thick.  She described the object making the sound as a box floating in the air, and Greta jumped even before she heard it.  “Lord Needle and your smidgen troop,” she commanded, and when she heard the floating box herself, she knew it was the Wolv shuttle, and it was landing,

“Fudge,” Briana said it this time when she recognized the sound.  She looked at Greta as a hundred little lights appeared to flutter and zip around Greta’s hand.  They were pin lights, and Briana asked what they were.

“These are nano-bites or nano-chits, the spiritual version.  They are smidgens, but some have called them gremlins for the way they love to gum up sophisticated machines.”

“Now, Lady,” a man said, as one pin light separated and turned into a five-inch fairy looking fellow, though even in his big size, he became not quite as big as a fairy.  “That is hardly fair since the only machines we have gummed up, as you say, are alien contraptions and thingy-ma-bobs that you told us about.”

“Right, and I have another one,” Greta said. ‘You will find it across the field, just landed.  I’ll get you through the screens and send you a picture of what to fry.”

“Lady,” Lord Needle bowed and returned to being a pinprick of light, and all of the lights followed him into the sky which by then had the faintest glimpse of light on the horizon.

Greta stood, and Amun Junior came to take her place. “Sorry, Ladies,” he said.  “But it is my turn.”  Of course, Junior could see the shuttle and the field perfectly, and he said as much.  “Fudge. I believe that is the current word. The shuttle let off six Wolv who are right now sneaking up to our lines.  Treeborn.  Horns.” The fairy and elf came right away, and Junior told them what they were facing.  Alesander, Hermes and Vedix followed, since conveniently, or by godly design, they were not really part of the command group.  Briana stood, and together they wondered if they might help.

“We still have the weapons and wristbands of the Wolv,” Alesander pointed out.

Junior shook his head, and then changed his mind. “If Rhiannon will hold up an energy screen against return fire, you might be able to draw the Wolv fire.  Maybe my elves and fairies can get close enough without being fried in the attempt.”

The humans were willing to draw the enemy fire, even if Rhiannon got stubborn, but Rhiannon was willing and only said one thing. “You do everything the hard way and make people work for their bread and butter.”

“I do,” Junior said.  “We do this by the book.”

R6 Greta: Battle Lines, part 3 of 3

The Scythians knew their business.  They made a line several men thick and swept from left to right across the face of the defenders, firing arrow after arrow at anything and everything.  When they reached the far end of the wall the town erected, having ridden outside the trenches and pikes set out against cavalry, the Scythians turned away to circle around and get in line for another go.  Roman, Celtic and Elf archers all returned fire when they could, but they mostly had to keep their heads down because the Scythians were very good at this tactic.

The Dacians and the Roxolani on the ends became the first to attack.  The other outsiders followed them and then several thousand Scythians joined them in the center while their fellow Scythians continued to send wave after wave of arrows over their heads and into the Roman and Celtic lines.

The Romans built well, as always.  The enemy could not bring their horses up through the pikes and ditches to impact the fight.  They had to dismount and charge on foot, a great disadvantage for horsemen forced to charge uphill.  The Romans in particular had the height and the skill, training and equipment to hold the line at all costs.  The fighting became intense in several places, but it did not last long.

When the Scythians started to withdraw, the Celts could not contain themselves.  They followed the retreating enemy with a charge of their own, so the Celtic Auxiliary units, which contained most of the Celtic horsemen, felt obliged to back them up. Then the Roman cavalry wanted some of that action.  Then several cohorts of the legion followed, and the orderly retreat of the Scythians turned into a route.

When the Scythians reached their hill, they thought to turn and drive the Celts and Romans back, but they found a surprise waiting for them.  Thousands of Goths and Slavs had come up in the early morning, just itching for a fight. The rout of the Scythians turned into a slaughter, and the Scythian line busted in two, with some fleeing to the Lazyges and others fleeing to the Roxolani.

“Bring them back,” the Princess said.  She stood on the battlement beside Darius, Cecil and the others.  “We don’t have the men to hold the center.  We are spread too thin to hold the town.”

“Alesander.”  Darius shouted.  “Sound the recall.”  Alesander did that, and trumpets blared out across the field in the late morning. Cecil agreed and signaled his men to sound the drums.  The Romans returned in order, and the Celts in disorder, but they returned, and the Goths and Slavs followed them at a safe distance.

The Princess went away.  Greta returned and gave Darius a great big kiss.  Then she asked for his help down from the battlements.  He asked, “Where are we going?”

“To introduce you to Olaf and Venislav.  Then you need to figure out how to fit a bunch of berserker Goths and barbaric Slavs into the line of defense.”

“Thanks a lot,” Darius said, but Greta already turned to the next thought.

“Redbeard.”  She spoke in her normal voice, at normal volume, but she knew the dwarf, a half mile away, would hear her.  “Get your men back here.”  The dwarfs were searching for surviving Scythians in order to finish the job, an act of mercy, they said.

###

The afternoon started quiet enough.  Darius, Alesander, Hadrianus, Olaf, Venislav and Cecil, a most odd command group, discussed a serious strike on the Roxolani wing where the large number of diverse tribes might make it hard for them to work together in a coordinated defense.

“We are pretty diverse,” Hadrianus pointed out.

“But we work together with you Romans pretty good,” Venislav nudged the Goth.  “Do you think my friend Olaf?”

“I like the idea of a quick attack, but I am not sure about pulling back again,” Olaf said, ignoring Venislav.

“Like a sortie from a city wall,” Darius explained.

“A feint,” Alesander said further.  “The object is to draw them into the hollow where two thousand archers are waiting.  The elves and fairies rarely miss, and we use our strengths and turn their numbers and many tribes stumbling over each other against them.”

The sound of laughter interrupted the meeting. Greta, Mavis, Berry and Briana were sitting in chairs not far away.  Venislav stepped up to Alesander and named them.

“Mother Greta, her elf maid, the beauty of the land and your woman?”

Alesander nodded.  “Just as soon as her father gives his blessing,” he said.

Cecil frowned.  “I’m still thinking about it.”

Olaf got it and let out a loud guffaw.  He slapped Cecil on the back and guffawed again.  “I think maybe we do this feint.  My father taught me to never trust the Romans, but this time we fight on the same side, eh, Venislav.”

“From what I see, I think fighting on the same side is better than fighting on the against side.”

Naturally, things did not exactly go as planned.  To prevent incidents of what Greta called friendly fire, Darius assigned the Romans, Celts, Goths and Slavs four different points in the enemy camp so they attacked four different tribes.  When the recall got sounded, the Romans were disciplined, and the Goths and Celts responded well enough, especially the Celts who were mostly auxiliary troops, but the Slavs took their time.  Their enemy tribe collapsed and ran right into a fifth tribe, and it looked for a bit like the Slavs might end up routing the whole enemy field, but the Roxolani stood firm, and when the Slavs rode back as fast as they could, they had a host of people chasing them, and the Slavs appeared to be laughing and whooping and having a great time.

The Slavs rode right through several large groups of men who were already pinned down in the archery area.  By luck and hastily shouted orders, only three Slavs got hit, and none fatally.  When the big group of men that were chasing them arrived, they took the men already there for the enemy and as hoped, Mithrites killed Mithrites.  The archers simply had to keep them penned in.  To be sure, it did not take long for the enemy to figure it out and hastily retreat from the hollow, but by then, the enemy dead outnumbered the allies by three to one, at least according to the fairies that flew over the enemy camps.

Everyone shouted for joy until Bogus put a damper on the celebration.  “We need to do that every time, since they outnumber us three to one.”  The numbering was actually closer to two to one, but the point got made and the men sobered.

All this while, Greta and her friends watched the Scythians move warily back up on the center hill across the valley.  The Ladies Oreona and Goldenrod got chairs and joined the group and they were invaluable in describing what happened on that far hill; Goldenrod in particular with her fairy eyes.  There were arguments down in the Lazyges and Dacian camp.  The Roxolani, Capri and Costoboci still licked their wounds and were in no condition to mount an offensive.  And the Scythian burned their dead.  Greta concluded.

“It’s about two o’clock.  Plenty of sunlight left, but I doubt there will be another attack today.”

“We do seem to have put them off their intentions,” Father said as he walked up and kindly acknowledged all the women, human and non-human alike.  “Bragi and Drakka have already sent the local men home for the night, to come back to position before dawn.”

“Fair enough,” Lady Oreona said.  “Our enemies were decidedly unsuccessful today.  With any luck, some of the tribes may rethink this whole enterprise in the night and begin to pull back by morning.”

“Once the sun sets, I am sure Ulladon and her people can handle the night watch just fine,” Briana said.

“The Romans can take the afternoon well enough,” Mavis agreed.

“Wait a minute.  What is that?”  Berry saw something and pointed.

“I was wondering myself,” Goldenrod said.

A flash of light, and Rhiannon arrived, and Karina and Padme in her arms arrived with the goddess.  Padme shrieked and giggled and clapped her hands at disappearing from one place and instantly reappearing somewhere else.  Karina looked a bit disoriented, but Rhiannon spoke.

“Sarmatians.  Their horses and men are armored and they have big lances meant to crack the Roman phalanx.  Another ten thousand, as you say.”

“Fudge,” Greta said, and she really said fudge. “And we’ve come such a long way already.”

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MONDAY

The SunRunner shows himself, and some Wolv…  Until Monday, Happy Reading.

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